McKean County restauranteur Riki Tanaka had a clear message for lawmakers in Harrisburg on Tuesday: The one-size-fits-all approach to Gov. Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 plan doesn’t fit rural Pennsylvania, where common sense should rule the day.
Tanaka testified before the House Majority Policy Committee, chaired by Rep. Martin Causer, R-Turtlepoint, about the impact of the state’s mitigation efforts on restaurants, bars and taverns.
At the hearing, Causer explained the plight of the businesses.
“Over the last four months, owners and employees at bars and restaurants have been jumping through hoops to comply with the ever-changing orders coming down from the Wolf administration in hopes of helping their businesses survive the pandemic,” said Causer. “Then, on July 15, the rug was pulled out from under them as they were ordered to cut back their business even further with less than 12 hours’ notice and no real explanation about why from the governor or secretary of health.”
Causer continued, “These hard-working men and women have always taken seriously their responsibility to protect the health and safety of their employees and customers, and yet they are being singled out as a culprit in the spread of the virus without any evidence to back up those claims. They deserve better from their government, and that’s why we chose to hold this hearing. They need to know their voices are being heard and that we want to help.”
Tanaka, who owns Table 105 in Kane, and Corner Bistro and Fox’s Pizza in Smethport, told the committee, “I am here to represent rural America.”
He explained that McKean County has had 21 positive COVID-19 cases, and said it isn’t fair to be grouped into the same regulations as Allegheny and Philadelphia counties with thousands of cases.
“We have, frankly, a tyrant in the office of governor who is making decisions that are completely non-scientific based,” Tanaka said. “It would be wonderful if we could get some common sense rules.”
He mentioned the super stores, like Walmart and Home Depot, that have been allowed to stay open during the pandemic. “I would venture to say that most of those retail businesses in a week’s time see more customers than all the restaurants in McKean County combined.”
So forcing restaurants to operate at 25% capacity while allowing the super stores to stay open is targeted and unfair, he explained.
“At my restaurants we have done everything that we possibly can to create a safe environment for our customers and our staff,” Tanaka continued. “It is painstaking. This business is hard enough to manage under the most perfect of conditions. Now throw in the governor’s orders, it’s impossible.”
How does one keep staff, and keep them motivated, when the operating status of the restaurant can change in an instance?
“I would implore the governor to come up and visit my restaurant, any of my friends’ restaurants,” he said. “It isn’t the same in rural Pennsylvania as it is in other parts of the state. “I think he’d see a different picture.”
In March, when businesses were shut down, it was a big adjustment, Tanaka said. “We’re a resilient group.” To keep his businesses open, they learned how to do delivery, how to put together take out from a fine dining restaurant, and even instituted a “pop up grocery to give the elderly another source to come and purchase vegetables, proteins and sauces, so they were able to purchase groceries in a place that isn’t packed like the grocery stores.”
He explained that when restaurants were allowed to open at 50% capacity, it wasn’t optimal, but it was doable. Of course, being fully open or at 75% would be even better.
“We continue to adapt and change at a moment’s notice,” Tanaka said. Every time these orders come, restaurants are left with perishable foods they’ve already bought. “I don’t get to call vendors and say ‘can you come pick this stuff back up? The governor screwed me again.’ It doesn’t work that way.”
He offered suggestions for ways to help restaurants in rural areas, the first of which was to allow them to reopen. COVID-19 cases are low in the region, and Tanaka said business owners deserve a chance to operate safely.
“Let us take care of ourselves,” he said. “Let me make some decisions on how to best protect the community and my staff.”
If restaurants aren’t permitted to reopen fully, then they will need help, Tanaka said.
“Find us some help. We pay $1,400 to the Liquor Control Board annually” for a liquor license, he said, and they haven’t been able to make use of it. What about a discount? Can state-run liquor stores offer a bigger discount to restaurants? “Can’t they take it on the back once in a while?” Tanaka asked the committee.
He addressed the mask controversy as well, explaining many of his employees are teens working summer jobs or jobs after school. “We have grown men and women yelling at a child who is just doing their job. They are getting yelled and screamed at because I asked my staff to enforce a mask order,” Tanaka said. He risks losing his licenses if he doesn’t enforce it. Yet places like Walmart have said they won’t require their staff to enforce it, because they want to avoid confrontations with irate customers.
“How is it OK that they don’t have to enforce that mask rule but I do? That’s unfair,” he said. “The rules should apply to everyone.”
Tuesday’s hearing was the first in a series of hearings in which the House Republican Caucus plans to work to develop policies to help the state and various business and industry sectors recover from the impacts of COVID-19 mitigation.
Several testifiers offered input on steps the state and the General Assembly could take to assist them as they seek to move forward and recover from the impacts of the virus mitigation efforts. They included providing a grant program to help small business restaurants and taverns recover business losses and make improvements to comply with COVID-19 requirements: eliminating various liquor-related and small games of chance license fees and surcharges; providing civil immunity for restaurants that comply with state orders, capping third-party delivery charges, and maintaining operational changes such as allowing the sale of mixed drinks to go.
It is estimated the state is home to more than 25,000 restaurants employing more than a half million people. According to the latest unemployment data for the Commonwealth, the food and accommodations industry has the highest unemployment rate at 17.2%.
Causer said noticeably absent from the hearing was anyone from the Wolf administration. Both Department of Health Secretary Rachel Levine and the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement were invited to participate and respond to questions at the hearing. Both refused, though Levine submitted brief written testimony.